Review of the Week 9 (Mar 13, 15)
Tuesday, Mar 13
First, we looked at a couple of quotes from Graham, as practice for the section of the exam in which we will be explaining critical passages.
When talking through the first passage, the class decided that Graham was attempting to convey the message that individual people cannot define what makes them human. Instead, it is up to others, be they other humans or fictional creations which blur the lines of humanity, to make us understand what allows us to call ourselves human. We then took this idea further, exploring the notion that what we perceive as human qualities are actually just societal constructs. This line of thinking questions the theory of the a universal human, or that we all have a certain “essence” that makes us human. Even if we do all possess this essence, it may be impossible for us to define it, as we are so hamstrung by our cultural perception of humankind.
We then moved on to the second section, in which Graham leads us away from a “monolithic version of the human” (Carrie), and pushes us towards the liberal humanist subject. She does this to dissuade us from the prevalent posthumanist perception that humans are inevitably bound to create cyborg-type beings. Partially fuelling this desire is her opinion that materiality and the body are vital to the nature of our existence.
Dr. Seaman gave us some advice on how to compose answers to this section of the exam, stating that we should “bear in mind both the general idea and the individual sentences” of the passage, and to “make sure what you’re saying takes into account everything that’s in there”. She warned us not to “make too many connections to other texts in this section […] do a close reading and directly address the key points”, and “if you’re struggling, go back to the original context”. Overall, it was said that “the most important thing is to convey your understanding of what that passage is communicating”.
We then moved on to talking about chapter 10 of Graham’s text. The author starts by telling us how narratives of various sorts are central to the ways in which the human is represented, including sources of fiction. She concentrates largely on representations, making sure to emphasise that this is the main concept which she has been working on throughout the book. Using Heidegger, she shows us that a materialist model of humanity involves an emphasis on matter and the physical body, not just transcendent essences. Heidegger critiques this perception of humankind, and looks at human existence in terms of the world, and the material with which we engage and inhabit, ideas which Hayles assents to. In his theory, humans aren’t defined by what they are physically, but how they interact with material things around them. Without the earth’s material qualities to engage with, humans would not exist in the same way, leading us to believe that the essence of humankind may lay in the nature of its creativity. Everything we do is an interaction with other things, whether they are tools, humans, or other organic life. Dr. Seaman presented the example of a class, and how this is made up of the agency of the students and the professor, as well as many other non-sentient things. As she stated, “the class experience is produced by all of us together”, and it progresses for the benefit of both the subjects and objects involved. Humans and machines, in Graham’s terms, are increasingly assimilated, just as in BSG, where humans and machines produce various versions of each other. Human nature therefore cannot be understood as one isolated essence, because it is constantly defined and re-defined by its interactions with other subjects and objects. Heidegger critiques how humans define themselves through how we create and use tools – the Stone Age moves through to the Bronze Age, letters become emails, and so on. We don’t progress through the way we use and develop tools, according to Heidegger, but instead develop in conjunction with them.
At the top of p.299, Graham focuses on critiquing the idea that humans are artificial, and that everything else has some kind of natural essence to it. Technoscience insists on this extreme division between human and nature, and that the moment nature comes under control of humankind, it ceases to be natural. Graham insists that rather than being separate from nature, humans are intrinsically entwined with their tools and surroundings. We’ve looked at ontological hygiene this semester, and how it has been challenged over time by the tools and technology we’ve produced. However, Graham states that we’ve always been in a symbiotic relationship with these things, and that this is part of what makes us human. She expresses concern at this notion of ontological hygiene, which holds that these things have no agency in regard to us, and speaks instead about the “vitality of matter”. Graham dismisses the notion that though we live in the world, other things don’t inform who we are, and that we’re still the same whatever technologies we develop. She perceives this view as enormously reductive to matter, seeing as it defines matter as irrelevant to the nature of human existence. She also lambasts the idea central to ontological purity, that everything can be neatly placed into separate categories, and states that in actual fact, things interact constantly. On p.231, Graham moves on, in keeping with her focus on religion, to the posthumanist assumption that there is an innate drive towards disembodied transcendence in every human psyche. She also challenges the notion that every religion desperately desires transcendence away from the human body, when materiality is a crucial part of our existence.
We then briefly discussed Bynum’s interview and introduction. She looks at how medieval cultures thought about transcendence and the path to spiritual understanding in terms of the body and mind in a combined form. This contrasts with the modern theory that the body is vulnerable, and must be escaped in order to achieve perfectibility, a concept which Hayles, Winner and Graham all critique. We came to understand that much of the time when we talk about the medieval, what we’re really referring to is Chaucer and the post-multiple kingdoms era. Bynum instead chooses to focus on the European Middle Ages, which is something different, and something earlier than we would normally address. In her intro, Bynum states how people in the Renaissance saw the Middle Ages in terms of what they weren’t and didn’t want to be. This is how terms like the “Dark Ages” came into being. She refers to herself as a historian of attitudes, rather than a historian of ideas, which we are used to. This means that rather than simply analysing elite concepts, she covers the notions of many disparate kinds of people alive at the time.
On Thursday, we took the midterm in OAKS, which decided to be very unhelpful, with the server going offline for 20-30 minutes at the very moment that the midterm required students to submit.
“You’re recognising in someone else what you might see as human, but that’s socially or historically constructed” – Taylor
“Not only would the posthuman be modelled after this elite minority, but it would also benefit them, because […] it would give the elites superpowers, and leave the majority with nothing” – Taylor
“What humans are is what they do” – Heidegger
“We see ourselves today as quite different from the humans from 200 years ago […] just in the way we exist in the world, and how we think that informs what it means to be human” – Dr. Seaman
“The world is a mutually constitutive system of subjects and objects” – Graham
“Bynum in her intro is investigating identity, the self, and the relation of change to that” – Dr. Seaman
Ontological hygiene – The idea that there is an essence in things, for instance the human, that is universal, transcendent, and uniquely different to any other being.
Disembodied omnipresence – The posthumanist view that by ridding ourselves of our supposedly feeble and flawed bodies, the potential for powers we can gain will be unlimited.
Vitality of matter – The concept that all things in existence possess agency, not just humans.
Preview of Week 10 (Mar 20, 22)
[by Dr. Seaman]
This week we move full-speed ahead into the middle ages, investigating how people in England in the 13th through 15th centuries imagined human perfection and how they imagined pursuing or even achieving it. We will find them working through their own cultural institution of the Church, especially, just as we found our fellow 20th/21st-century Westerners working through the culturally influential institution of technoscience.
On Tuesday we will return to the readings you did for last week, which we discussed only briefly, immersed in midterm preparation as we were on Tuesday. Please be prepared to discuss this week Bynum’s introduction (read for last Tuesday), which offers a framework that we will be working from throughout the rest of the semester. We will also discuss the two werewolf stories on the schedule for Tuesday the 20th, and two critical pieces (Howie’s brief excerpt pertains to Gerald of Wales’ story, and Hayles’ (remember her?) article from the first issue of the medieval journal I co-edit will, I expect, go far to helping us see how the contemporary posthuman is not so far from the medieval.
On Thursday, we get started on William of Palerne, which we will engage with for 3 class periods. It’s long, but it’s also in Middle English and available only in an old edition. On Tuesday I will give some practical tips on how to go about reading William of Palerne. This narrative is a romance, a very popular genre in the Middle Ages, one that you will find very familiar, I suspect (even if the details of this particular poem are likely to surprise you regularly). On Thursday we will discuss another essay from the first issue of postmedieval, this one a book review essay by Susan Akbari Conklin that addresses a variety of critical discussions of posthumanism (one of them the article I wrote on which this course is based, so you will find some of that familiar, as well).